by | 11.17.2010 | 12:46am
By Ray Paulick

While the racing industry has been a clear loser in the demise of South Florida's Hialeah Park, the city of Hialeah may have been dealt the greatest setback after the dormant track held its last race on May 22, 2001. It turns out, however, that city officials may be in part to blame for Hialeah's current plight.

Hialeah is a proud city, and for much of its history the civic pride of the heavily Hispanic populace has centered on Hialeah Park. The fifth-largest city in Florida with a current population of 250,000, Hialeah has lost jobs and tax revenue due to the track's closing. But there are intangibles that can't be measured in dollars and cents.

“It's been said and I believe it to be very true that Hialeah Park is the very soul of Hialeah,” said Alex Fuentes, who has led the Save Hialeah Park grass roots effort to bring Thoroughbred racing back to the place many refer to as the “grand dame” of the sport. “The track was the catalyst for the beginning of the city. The park was operational before the city was incorporated. It's the coffee table the entire city was built around. Even the high school mascot is a Thoroughbred. Everything here had to do with the racetrack.”

It's not widely known that the city actually held the deed to the track property and leased it to Brunetti throughout the years he operated Hialeah. A pass through lease-purchase agreement had the same terms as the mortgage, according to a source.

The 201-acre track had been owned by John Galbreath, the late sportsman who owned Darby Dan Farm and major league baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates. Galbreath paid roughly $21.5 million to buy the track from the estate of Eugene Mori in 1972, but wasn't able to operate at a profit, reportedly losing several million dollars before trying to sell Hialeah's pari-mutuel license and racing dates to Gulfstream Park in 1974.

That deal failed to go through, and Brunetti stepped in and arranged to buy the track in 1976 for a reported $13.3 million. It was termed a “complicated deal” by Audax Minor, who wrote a regular column called “The Race Track” for The New Yorker magazine. (For more on Audax Minor, whose real name is George F.T. Ryall, see this article in the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred.)

Minor reported the city of Hialeah paid $9 million, with Brunetti paying the remaining $4.3 million to acquire the racetrack. Before the deal was done, Bill McCollum, Florida's attorney general wrote an opinion giving the city the right to purchase the track. Some of the terms of the agreement between the city and Brunetti were disclosed in McCollum's opinion (which said the seller would receive only, $12.3 million, not the $13.4 million reported in The New Yorker). He wrote: “The terms of the agreement provide, among other things, that during the life of the agreement, the track will be used as a Thoroughbred racing facility and for other municipal-public ‘recreational and educational purposes.'”

At the end of the 30 years, provided he lived up to the terms of the agreement and kept up with his monthly payments to the city, Brunetti would be able to purchase Hialeah Park for a nominal fee of $100. However, sources have told the Paulick Report that other conditions of the agreement required Brunetti to maintain a pari-mutuel license permit.

Hialeah Park stopped operating as a racetrack in 2001 and Brunetti lost his pari-mutuel license in 2003. Yet the city of Hialeah handed him the deed to the track in late 2004 or early 2005 at the end of the lease agreement.

The relationship between Hialeah city officials and Brunetti can be called “cozy,” at the very least. For many years, a man named Esteban Bovo, who was a member of the city council and eventually council president, worked for Brunetti as his “asset manager.” Bovo recused himself on any council votes related to the racetrack.

The longtime mayor of Hialeah, Raul Martinez (whose 1991 racketeering and fraud conviction was appealed and defeated in a second trial), was a member of a Hialeah Park “advisory board” and said to be extremely close to Brunetti. (Martinez is currently running for Congress). It's believed that it was near the end of Martinez's 24-year run as mayor in 2005 that the deed was transferred to Brunetti, despite the terms of the agreement apparently not being met.

The current Hialeah mayor, Julio Robaina, is subject to term limits, which restrict him to two four-year terms in office. He is up for reelection this year and thought to be very motivated to bring racing back to Hialeah Park as part of his legacy. Halsey Minor, the Internet entrepreneur whose interest in buying Hialeah Park has so far been rebuffed by Brunetti, has met with Mayor Robaina on at least one occasion.

One option Robaina may want to explore, considering Brunetti's intransigence to sell, is eminent domain – a government entity taking over private property for public use. That may not be a popular concept in a town populated with exiled Cubans, many of whom had their personal property seized by the government of Fidel Castro, but there may not be many other options. Brunetti seems stuck on a price that far exceeds the appraised value of the property as a racetrack, and commercial development does not seem to be a near-term option for Hialeah Park.

It is in the city's best fidicuary interests to have Hialeah Park operating as a racetrack again. It will create jobs and tax revenues and help the local economy. By forcing the sale of the track to the city, Hialeah could reclaim the land it once owned and lease the track under a long-term agreement to someone like Halsey Minor, who wants to restore the track to its former glory.

The city owned and leased the property before; why not do it again?

“An economist can measure what this has cost us,” Alex Fuentes said of the loss of Hialeah Park as an operating racetrack. “But the city has lost a lot of pride and sense of place and respect. There is no other city like Hialeah. The people here have lost a sense of their own identity.” 

Copyright © 2008, The Paulick Report

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  • TomasinNM

    Brunetti, the Al Davis of horse racing (without the Super Bow rings).

  • Denise

    Mr. Paulick:
    Well written piece on this “Grand Dame” of thoroughbred racing in America. What a beautiful track; what history. Hialeah is, as far as I’m concerned one of the 5 most gorgeous tracks in North America. She’s right up there with Churchill (mostly because of history, but pretty), Saratoga, Del Mar and Santa Anita on a clear day (maybe Hollywood Park in it’s heydays…now doomed to the excavator). What a shame Brunetti has allowed it to fall into such disrepair. Why is it always just about the MONEY!

    I never had any doubt that Mr. Minor always had a plan to wrestle that park away from Brunetti and maybe “eminent domain” is the ticket. I did not know Brunetti owned the park lock, stock and barrel. I think that’s what is you said when the city turned the deed over to Brunetti. I thought Mr. Minor could gain control of the park through the failure of Brunetti to maintain minimal standards at the park via the city government. Especially if he had a comprehensive plan that supported quality of life issues for the community….and boy, does it’s quality of life need a face lift. I was told the surrounding area is pretty grim, not unlike Pimlico and Hollywood Park. That needs to be addressed too, if true.

    I don’t think any intelligent Cuban would disapprove of an eminent domain plan since it would bring jobs (especially during remodeling), revenue to the city and preserve a piece of Hialeah’s history. It’s not like Castro at all, in my capitalistic opinion. This would be a partnership between the city and Mr. Minor, an entrepeneur…we shall see. I hope she can be saved. Next on the chopping block….Pimlico! Thank you MEC. NOT!

  • Louie Dula

    Your article is wonderful, as was your last one about Hialeah. When I read the book “Hialeah, A Racing Legend” it said that the deed went to the City Of Hialeah so that’s why I couldn’t understand how Brunetti was trying to tear it down. I had no idea that those stupid officals “GAVE” that moron the deed. I would think that the current Mayor could use the fact that those officals were in cahoots with Brunetti and that it was given to him without him fullfilling the agreement. There just has to be a way for Halsey Minor to buy Hialeah, we were all so hopeful when we heard about it and we know that he’d make her beautiful again. Everybody in Florida’s racing circle knows that Brunetti is a stupid idiot and will never even try to open Hialeah ever again. I really don’t think he even has enough money to do it anyway. He’s just an egotistical, pathetic ,mean moron who doesn’t even deserve to be associated with Hialeah, he’s done nothing to even try to fix her up. I sneak in there alot to take photos and over the years I’ve seen the damage and I’ve also seen that he’s done absolutely NOTHING to try to repair it. It saddens me to see the once gorgeous track in the shape she’s now in but I also know that it can all be repaired and that Halsey Minor would be the perfect person to bring her back to life. I sure hope the current Mayor of Hialeah will do something about trying to get the deed back and sell it to Halsey. We’re still “hopeful” down here in South Florida that she’ll be back again as she once was. I urge anyone reading this to email the mayor of Hialeah and tell him to get the track back under the control of the city.
    Please keep up with your articles about Hialeah… We really do appreciate your writing about her…. she so deserves to be brought back to life again.

    Louie Dula

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